Ultrarunning Gets Serious
While most Americans probably can’t even imagine running 200 miles, a contingency of runners is eager to go the extra distance. So what will it take to make the endurance craze stick?
Back when race director Candice Burt first dreamed up a 200-mile trail run around Lake Tahoe, she figured it would take time to build an audience for such an over-the-top concept. Its culmination, the Tahoe 200, will be held in early September. At a price tag of $850, the run gives hopefuls a full 100 hours to complete its rugged course.
Burt needn’t have worried about instant success: after the event had been open to applicants for only a week, 187 runners entered the lottery for one of just 75 available spots. And if the U.S. Forest Service renews its permit going forward, Burt thinks she can easily attract 200 racers yearly.
While most Americans probably can’t even imagine running 200 miles, a small contingency of runners seems eager to go the distance. In Europe, the five-year-old Tor des Geants, a 330-kilometer (that’s 205 miles, for the metric-averse) point-to-point race in the Italian Alps, fills all 660 slots immediately. If registration for the Tor des Geants and the Tahoe 200 is a reliable indicator, there’s an unmet demand for point-to-point 200’s.
“There are lots of runners who are ready to move beyond 100’s,” Burt explains, referring to the increasingly popular 100-mile ultradistance races. “People want the adventure of being outdoors for four days.” And, she observes, the runners who tackle 200-milers feel that that distance plays to their strengths. Instead of focusing on leg speed, they must pace themselves conservatively and rely heavily on mental fortitude. A multi-day race requires methodical planning, including strategies for sleep breaks. “The 200-mile distance levels the playing field,” she speculates.
Racers attempting 200’s will also have to endure considerable physical discomfort—for days. Deby Kumasaka, who signed up for the 2014 Tahoe 200, says she’s expecting to suffer blisters on her feet from the sandy terrain. She knows she must prepare herself to muscle through fatigue that’ll be compounded by lack of sleep, the hot midday sun, and thin mountain air. But these extreme challenges appeal to her. “In the end,” Kumasaka asserts, “those with the strongest minds will do well.”
The interest in 200-mile races follows a period of rapid growth for ultramarathons, which are defined as any distance over 26.2 miles. According to UltraRunning magazine, the number of finishers for these courses shot from 15,500 in 1998 to 69,573 last year. “Marathons are a popular form of accomplishment, but running an ultra has the extreme factor, making it the next frontier,” says Tia Bodington, who just left her position as editor of UltraRunning.
So far, growth for 200-mile races has been far more modest than for their shorter-distance counterparts. After all, runners have to invest both money and training time to compete in such events. Participants must also devote more time to recovering from their exertions—a reality that may not appeal to some of the most avid runners. Bryon Powell, the editor of ultrarunning website iRunFar.com, says he believes 200-mile races will grow, but perhaps only to a few thousand runners a year worldwide. “That’s a pretty small niche, even within the already small one of ultrarunning,” he says.
Growth for 200-milers has thus far also been limited by a scarcity of events. Just a handful of 200’s take place in the U.S. And, with the exception of the Tahoe 200, those have all been loop courses—like the Pigtails Challenge in Renton, Washington, or the Peak Ultra’s 100-, 200-, or 500-mile races that take place on a 10-mile loop in Vermont.
Even if runners show interest in 200-milers, race directors may be reluctant to tackle the massive logistics of creating new events. Burt and her volunteers will need to mark a daunting 200 miles of trail. They’ll have to provide full-service hot-food aid stations every 20 miles, smaller stations with water and energy gels every 10, and five sleep stations with cots, blankets, and sheets.
If more venues are game enough to offer point-to-point 200-mile races, they should be able to draw an impressive range of runners in the future, though. The upcoming Tahoe 200’s entrants come from 9 countries and 27 U.S. states, with the majority of them aged thirty and forty—but quite a few in their fifties and sixties as well.
Burt was also pleasantly surprised to find that a quarter of her participants were women; she’d assumed a race as long as hers would have an even higher proportion of men than 75 percent. And she believes future iterations of the event will continue to attract a diverse, international crowd. “There really haven’t been any other races like this in the U.S.,” Burt says.